Social media has both an upside and a downside for teenagers. In the pro column, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat can be lifesavers for teens who feel isolated or marginalized—including LGBTQ+ teens and those struggling with mental health issues. Research shows positive effects of social media on friendships.
But there are also plenty of cons associated with frequent use of social media: cyberbullying, negative self-image and body image, social media addiction, and less time spent doing healthy, real-world activities.
Social Media and Teen Mental Health
A large body of research links the use of social media with increased teen depression. For example, in a 2018 study, 14- to 17-year-olds who used social media seven hours per day were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, treated by a mental health professional, or taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue during the last year. This was compared to those who used screens only about an hour a day. Additional surveys of US adolescents show that teen depressive symptoms and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, the years when the use of smartphones and technology grew exponentially.
In addition, a CNN study of 13-year-olds and their relationship with social media found that participants who checked Facebook or other networking sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37 percent more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day. Those who checked more than 100 times a day were 47 percent more distressed on average.
Many experts believe that the constant overstimulation of social networking shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. As a result, this makes disorders such as ADHD, teen depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and teen anxiety worse. Teens who spend less time on non-screen activities, such as in-person social interaction, sports, exercise, homework, and print media, are less likely to report mental health issues.
Which Comes First?
Not all studies support these findings, however. One recent study found that adolescent well-being does go down with digital technology use, but by only .4 percent at most. And it might go the other way: Depression may lead to tech overuse rather than vice versa. When teens are depressed, they look at social media more often. Another study looked at social media use among 594 adolescents over two years, and 1,132 undergraduate students over six years. They found that social media use did not predict depressive symptoms among adolescents or undergraduates. But among adolescent girls who had depressive symptoms, social media use increased over time.
Social media undermines teen mental health, particularly girls, through what’s known as social comparison. Teenagers on social media spend much of their time observing the lives and images of their peers, leading to constant comparisons that can damage self-esteem and body image, and even lead to depression.
According to the most recent Pew Research Center report on the effect of social media on teenagers, 43 percent of teenagers say they feel pressure to only post content on social media that makes them look good to others. Furthermore, 26 percent of teens say these sites make them feel worse about their own life.
Health Hazard or Healthy Inspiration?
Social media also provides forums in which teens can encourage each other in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors. Hence, teens with eating disorders or teens who self-harm can connect with others to talk about their self-destructive routines. In these online forums, obsessive calorie counting, fasting, or other exercising are accepted and encouraged. As a result, teens may learn ways to hide or increase the behavior, putting them at greater risk.
In addition, the very act of using social media has unhealthy results. For one, social media use negatively affects sleep because the artificial blue light given off by smartphones activates arousing neurons in the brain. Hence, these chemicals disrupt the body’s ability to produce melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.
However, a teen social network can also inspire teenagers to develop healthy habits. Thus, seeing peers eating healthy food, doing something creative, or getting outside in nature can encourage other teens to do the same. Hence, the effect of social media on teenagers might even result in more unplugged time.
In addition, the Internet offers the potential to help teens with mental health challenges, through online therapy and education for people who would not seek it in person, cannot afford it, or don’t live in a geographic area where they have access to it.
Are Online Friendships Real Friendships?
The Pew Research Center report looked at 743 teens, ages 13 to 17, during two months in 2018. The data regarding social media and friendships showed that 80 percent of teens (ages 13–17) say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives. Two-thirds of teens say these platforms make them feel as if they have people who will support them through tough times.
However, the survey shows a difference in social media friends vs. real friends. About 60 percent of teens say they spend time with their friends online on a daily or nearly daily basis. But only 24 percent spend time with their friends that often in person, outside of school.
In addition, some 45 percent of teens say they feel overwhelmed by all the drama on social media, and often unfriend or unfollow others on social media as a result. A little over half of the teens surveyed said that cyberbullying directed at them or others was their reason for unfriending.
The Addictive Quality of Social Media for Teens
Scientists have found that teen overuse of social media creates a stimulation pattern similar to the pattern created by other addictive behaviors. One study showed that receiving “likes” on social media activates the same circuits in the teenage brain that are activated by eating chocolate or winning money. When a teen posts something online and is met with likes, shares, and positive comments from their peers, the brain releases dopamine, the pleasure chemical. For some, this can begin an addictive cycle that drives them to spend increasing amounts of time on social media.
Teen social media addiction is often the result of underlying issues, such as chronic stress, anxiety, or childhood trauma. Hence, treatment at Newport Academy includes unplugging from phones and social media. As a result, teens experience digital withdrawal symptoms as they would with drug withdrawal, such as anxiety, increased heart rate, and even tremors.
But after several days, teens begin to reawaken to their IRL (“in real life”) environment, forming face-to-face friendships, reconnecting with nature, and discovering creative offline activities. Ultimately, positive IRL connections make the biggest difference in a teenager’s life.